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For the past few weeks, astronomers have been monitoring events in a galaxy so far away its light took more than 20 million years to reach us.

Their interest was sparked by a supernova explosion so violent that even at such a vast distance it could be seen from Earth with binoculars. As it fades back into obscurity, astronomers are racing to find clues that might explain the driving force of these awesome events.

On the face of it, such research sounds utterly irrelevant to the human condition. Yet paradoxically our connection to supernovas could hardly be more intimate.

Everything around us - including our very skin and bones - is made of atoms created inside these cosmic furnaces.

Not even the Big Bang itself was capable of such a feat: it expanded and cooled too fast to make much beyond atoms of hydrogen and helium. All of the other chemical elements were made in the death throes of massive stars.

Understanding supernovas is thus central to understanding our own origins because we really are quite literally, to coin a hippie phrase, made of stardust.

Reaching that understanding has proved extraordinarily difficult. Despite millennia of observations and more than half a century of intense theoretical effort, exactly what lies behind the violence of supernovas remains a mystery.

They come in various forms but in broad terms all have their roots in a star that gets too big for its own good. Most are the death throes of huge old stars that run out of fuel and collapse, causing an explosive rise in temperature.

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